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The Peshawar, Paris, Pathankot link

“The Pathankot case demonstrates that even when a country has actionable intelligence, controlling a terrorist threat requires better coordination, decision-making and presence of mind.” Picture shows Indian Army personnel in Pathankot. Photo: AP

“The Pathankot case demonstrates that even when a country has actionable intelligence, controlling a terrorist threat requires better coordination, decision-making and presence of mind.” Picture shows Indian Army personnel in Pathankot. Photo: AP   | Photo Credit: Channi Anand

We no longer inhabit a world where the argument ‘your terrorist is not my terrorist’ holds much weight.

In the last 15 years, several major cities have come under attack — New York (2001), London (2005), Mumbai (2008), Boston (2013), Peshawar (2014) and Paris (2015). In the first week of 2016 alone, terrorists have struck Kabul, Pathankot, Tel Aviv, and various locations in Iraq. These incidents have flagged the limits of the operational capacities of intelligence agencies worldwide, and have demonstrated that terrorist group behaviour is unpredictable.

Take the >Pathankot attacks . The Indian Army intercepted key phone calls a day before the attacks, and readied a plan (however flawed). Even so, it took several days for the security forces to control the situation. The Pathankot case demonstrates that even when a country has actionable intelligence, controlling a terrorist threat requires better coordination, decision-making and presence of mind. Having said this, it is still the case that many terrorist attacks are averted by intelligence agencies. As the Irish Republican Army said in 1984 after the failed Brighton bombing, the purpose of which was to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, “Today we were unlucky. But remember we only have to be lucky once, you [the state] will have to be lucky always.”

Off the radar

The spate of coordinated attacks that started last year, while not direct results of intelligence failure, do signal a mismatch between the capacities of intelligence agencies and the tactics employed by terrorist groups worldwide. The > Paris attacks were similar in their modus operandi to the 26/11 attacks conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Both attacks depended on youth who did not figure prominently on intelligence agency radars, and were suicide missions. Both attacks targeted population centres in megacities at times when the loss of lives from the attacks would be at the maximum. The Pathankot attacks used young people suspected of being recruited by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), but they were better trained than the 26/11 attackers. Later, the United Jihad Council (UJC) took responsibility for the attacks. JeM is not currently known to be part of the UJC.

The attacks on major population centres and strategic military bases tell us that there is grave need to rethink the security apparatus in major cities, especially in democratic countries that have lent strategic, diplomatic or tactical support to counter-insurgency campaigns against radical outfits in West Asia.

Terrorist groups stay ahead of intelligence agencies because they often prefer to go low-tech (where intelligence agencies rely heavily on technology). Also, the sheer scale of radicalised groups across the world, and bureaucratic bungling within intelligence agencies, slows down operations. Further, intelligence agencies of different countries often do not share information with each other.

The end result of these dual processes – hybrid tactics of terror that have evolved substantially over time and intelligence agencies that miss red flags — is a massive loss of life in urban population centres.

How can we enhance the prevention of terrorist attacks in big cities and strategic bases worldwide? The 26/11 experience suggests it was not technically a failure of intelligence gathering, as various simulations had previously predicted the possibility of a fidayeen attack. It was more a failure of policy implementation and the inability of our intelligence agencies to pin down what specific targets were at risk and the exact date and time they would be at risk. The Pathankot attack was known a day before. However, the top-heavy strategy that was put in place allowed for a small strike team consisting of Garud commandos (whose role in such operations is unclear), National Security Guard (NSG) commandos (who seemed to not have the same conflict-hardened presence of mind as regular soldiers), and the Defence Security Corps (who are composed of retired veterans), instead of the regular heavy-fisted Army soldiers, 50,000 of whom could easily have been mobilised around Pathankot.

Fighting those who are ready to die for a cause is tricky because conventional methods of warfare do not work against such actors. They cannot be smoked out, or strategically exhausted. Their modus operandi remains one of inflicting maximum damage and even in death, they booby-trapping their bodies by lying on grenades that kills any careless combatant, who moves the body. The Indian Army has learned to defuse bombs even on dead militants in Jammu and Kashmir. Attackers such as the ones that conducted the attacks on Paris or on Pathankot often have no prior record of such activity, and do not always appear as red flags on an intelligence scanner.

Today ensuring the security of big population centres and military bases is not a task that any country can undertake by itself. This is an era of transnational terrorist attacks. The UJC, for instance, consists of 13 affiliated terrorist organisations.

How does a state protect its citizens against such attacks? Terrorists exploit the lack of cooperation between countries, but this should give us the strongest case for more cooperation between intelligence agencies domestic and worldwide. We no longer inhabit a world where the argument “your terrorist is not my terrorist” holds much weight. This is because the playing field and participants of terrorism have changed.

Case for deeper cooperation

Some steps have already been taken to boost cooperation. The Los Angeles Police Department had sent over a team to study the Mumbai attacks, resulting in the evolution of its Multiple Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities.

Increasing cooperation means sharing lessons learnt, training personnel and emulating tactics, sharing intelligence and technology advancements between countries. Next, this cooperation needs to be institutionalised. A single act of terrorism today involves multiple countries. So, any effective security measure to combat terrorism necessitates the inclusion and cooperation of other countries. To strive towards this purpose, the then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, launched a multilateral counterterrorism body, the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), with 30 founding members (29 countries plus the EU) from around the world on September 22, 2011. GCTF is a major initiative within the Obama administration’s broader effort to build counterterrorism measures. Since its inception, the GCTF has facilitated numerous talks and policy proposals with a multilateral strategy in mind.

Many other such initiatives have successfully integrated nations and regional blocs from around the world in a combined security network. But sadly, this collaboration has been lacking to the same degree in South Asia, the region that perhaps needs international cooperation on counterterrorism the most.

(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. Bharath Gopalaswamy is Director of the South Asia Department at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.)

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 3:47:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/The-Peshawar-Paris-Pathankot-link/article13994209.ece

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